This past week brought a smoky smell, floating ash, and a hazy, deep red sun to downtown Portland. School athletics were cancelled and people advised to stay indoors. Pedestrians walk about in face masks as if this was Beijing, and our primary commercial lifeline to the east – Interstate 84 – has been closed for several days. These are all the consequence of some irresponsible teens with fireworks who started the Eagle Creek Fire, burning in the heart of the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area about 30 miles east of downtown. As of this writing, the fire has burned 31,000 acres and is only 5% contained.
The Columbia Gorge is the crown jewel of the fantastic landscapes that surround Portland and make it such an attractive place to live and work. It also is a crucial component of the region's economic engine, generating $400 million in tourist revenue in 2016 alone. That is a 37% increase since 2010. Gorge tourism also accounted for about 4,800 jobs and $17.5 million in tax revenue in 2016.
A loss of Gorge tourism would not affect only the tourism industry. If the Gorge was not the draw that it has been, the economic vitality of Portland might be very different. Many highly-educated workers are drawn to the natural beauty and recreation available in the area, which in turn draws companies offering good wages and steady employment. That allure may change if the appeal of the Gorge is suppressed while it regenerates from the fire.
For now, the focus is on people's safety, protection of communities, and the preservation of historic structures. But when Portland's winter rains inevitably douse the flames and we can assess the damage, we may find that a few firecrackers have rendered more lasting damage than a burned-out forest. Mother Nature will regenerate the forest; regenerating the economic engine that has been powered by the Columbia Gorge may prove more challenging.